The question that I, as a rabbi, am most often asked these days is not about believing in God but on how to cope with cancer. It is hardly surprising, given that three out of four families will have to care for a relative with the disease at some point.
Cancer may have increased sharply in modern times, but it was already mentioned in medieval Hebrew texts, being described as sartan, meaning “crab”, suggesting a nasty creature that grabs you and causes pain.
For many, the first questions are “Why me?” and “What have I done to deserve this?” These are also ancient questions — asked in the Bible by Job and reiterated down the ages. Our faith leads us to expect divine fairness — if we play by the rules, we expect to be rewarded, or at least not to be punished.
Moreover, we feel that if there is a rational explanation to our fate, then we can accept it more readily: the heavy smoker, for instance, knows there is cause and effect.
Some rabbis have sought to make sense of woes that seem to lack any justification — blaming them on people’s secret sins, offering the compensation of a better world ahead, or citing God’s unknowable plan.
However, most prefer to follow the advice of the medieval scholar Maimonides, who warned us not to seek the reasons for unfathomable mysteries, such as why innocent people suffer. He argued that there is no hope of a rational answer and so one should not even ask the question. Doing so will lead one round in circles, torturing oneself unnecessarily; or, in desperation, some people will settle on some ridiculous explanation, because they prefer to have an answer, however ludicrous, to no answer at all.
Instead of asking “why”, a more important question is “How am I going to respond?” For some, the cancer is all-consuming: it dominates their days and their conversation. This is understandable but it means that even when the cancer is beaten, it has taken away years of their life that can never be returned.
Others regard the cancer as an irritant, like a leg wound that makes them limp, but rather than rest at home, they are just as busy as before, albeit limping. They push doctor’s appointments to the edge of their day, still work, pursue their hobbies or family commitments, and try to preserve as much of their personal agenda as possible.
Others simply collapse and react hysterically. They decide that a tumour is a death sentence and spend their days worrying how little time they may have left, rather than making the most of it. They give up and, effectively, shorten their lives.
We all have a choice about whether we are going to be a cancer sufferer (who has to contend with the disease) or a cancer victim (who is going to fall prey to it even if we recover).
Faith can help the fightback. Medication, exercise and diet are vital, but prayer can count too. We cannot expect God to wave a magic wand and make everything better, but we can use prayer to express our deepest thoughts and fears and hopes. It can also be a sign of humility,
saying: “I am going to try very hard, but I can’t do this all on my own, so can You take over a bit, God.” Indeed, every Sabbath morning service closes with the reminder: “In God’s hands I place my soul.”
Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav identified Ten Psalms of Healing which he suggested his followers read when they were ill and which would help them remain positive (they are 16, 32, 41, 42, 59, 77, 90, 105, 137, 150).
Most powerful of all is the remarkable blessing of survival that Jews recite periodically: “Blessed are You God, who has sustained us and kept us alive and brought us to this season.”
It says that even with our troubles, we have reached this point; whatever happens next, we have survived this far and should be thankful. The now is where we live.